One of the topics that was discussed in the first podcast episode of season two was the quality (or lack thereof) of most terrorism impacts. As if on cue, Charles V. Peña of The Independent Institute has written an excellent new article about the relative impact of terrorism — a card from the article is below the fold.
Terrorism is not an existential threat—their evidence is just hype.
Charles V. Peña, Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Senior Fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former Senior Fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute and Former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, Analyst for MSNBC television, holds an M.A. in Security Studies from George Washington University, 2010 (“Better Safe Than Sorry?,” Antiwar.com, September 30th, Available Online at http://original.antiwar.com/pena/2010/09/30/better-safe-than-sorry/print/, Accessed 10-01-2010)
In the post-9/11 world, “better safe than sorry” has become an article of faith guiding the actions we take in the name of preventing terrorism. But are we truly better safe than sorry?
To begin, the main reason so many people are willing to accept “better safe than sorry” is because they believe the consequences are too terrible to act otherwise. In other words, we should be willing to do almost anything to prevent another terrorist attack. Although another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 – which killed some 3,000 people – would be a great catastrophe and tragedy, it would not be an end-of-the-world event. As a nation, we survived 9/11, and we would (or at least we should) survive if there was another 9/11. That is not to trivialize or marginalize the people killed by the 9/11 attacks (or who would be killed in any future terrorist attacks), but it’s important to understand that terrorism is not an existential threat – otherwise, our responses are disproportionate (in magnitude or cost, or both) to the actual threat. It’s hard to be dispassionate because of the emotionalism surrounding 9/11, but here are some numbers worth considering to put “better safe than sorry” in context when it comes to terrorism. According to the Global Terrorism Database, from 1970 through 2007, there have been 1,347 terrorist incidents in the United States resulting in 3,340 fatalities (2,949 of which were on 9/11) and 2,234 injuries. That’s less than 100 fatalities per year on average (and more like 10 if you exclude 9/11 as an extraordinary event).
By way of comparison, consider these 2006 fatality statistics from the the Centers for Disease Control:
* Unintentional fall deaths: 20,853
* Motor vehicle traffic deaths: 43,646
* Unintentional poisoning deaths: 27,531
* Homicides: 18,573
* Firearms homicides: 12,791
Put another way, far more people die in a single year from other causes than have died as result of terrorism over a span of more than 35 years. Yet we have a Chicken Little attitude that the sky is falling when it comes to the potential threat of terrorism.
There are several more good cards in the article. What’s your favorite “terrorism is not an existential threat” card? Post it in the comments.